"Not a big deal": Police commander's text after Eric Garner's death draws gasps at trial

By Erin Donaghue

/ CBS News

NYPD cop accused of chokehold fights for job

A New York Police Department commander texted "Not a big deal" to an officer in 2014 after learning Eric Garner had most likely died during a police encounter, according to testimony Thursday. CBS radio affiliate WCBS reports there were audible gasps as Lt. Christopher Bannon's texts to Sgt. Dhanan Saminath were displayed during the departmental trial for officer Daniel Pantaleo.

New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / AP

Pantaleo is accused of using a banned chokehold on Garner, which a medical examiner testified this week set into motion "a lethal sequence of events." Garner, a father of six, had been arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes numerous times and was suspected of doing the same when officers approached him, police said. Garner, who had asthma, suffered a heart attack in an ambulance and was pronounced dead at a hospital.

In a video of the fatal encounter that quickly went viral after his death, Garner is heard repeatedly saying, "I can't breathe." His pleas have become a rallying cry against police brutality. Garner's family members left the court in tears as the video was played as the departmental trial opened on Monday.

In the texts displayed Thursday as Bannon testified, Saminath texted Bannon to let him know that Garner had been wrestled to the ground and was "most likely DOA," an acronym for dead on arrival. Bannon replied: "Not a big deal, we were effecting a lawful arrest."

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When pressed to explain the message by Suzanne O'Hare, who is prosecuting the case with the watchdog agency the Civilian Complaint Review Board, Bannon said his reasoning "was not to be malicious. It's to make sure the officer knew he was put in a bad situation," reports the New York Times.

When O'Hare asked whether Bannon would agree Garner was placed in a bad situation, according to the paper, Bannon hesitated before replying, "I don't know how to answer that."

The text drew outrage from the Garner family, WCBS reports, including Garner's mother, Gwen Carr.

"'No big deal?' If one of your loved ones or one of his loved ones was on the ground dead and someone come up to you and say, 'it's no big deal,' how would you feel about it?" Carr said outside the court. "I think this officer should be off the force."

Protest Continue Across Country In Wake Of NY Grand Jury Verdict In Chokehold Death Case
A protest on Dec. 4, 2014 following the decision by a Staten Island grand jury not to indict a police officer who used an alleged chokehold in the death of Eric Garner in July 2014 in New York City. Kena Betancur / Getty Images

Pantaleo's attorney has argued that the officer didn't use a chokehold, but rather an academy-taught "seatbelt technique." Attorney Stuart London argued during opening statements that Garner's chronic asthma made him a "ticking time bomb."

Pantaleo, who was not indicted on criminal charges, faces departmental penalties ranging from a loss of vacation days to termination from the police force. A final decision rests with the police commissioner. The 33-year-old officer has been on desk duty since Garner's death.

First published on May 17, 2019 / 2:44 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Erin Donaghue

Erin Donaghue reports and writes for CBSNews.com on topics including criminal justice, social justice and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @ErinDonaghue.

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